When we transform the disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.
IT had never occurred to me to think of God as a therapist when I began to spend time, 10 years ago, at an evangelical church in Chicago. Like many secular observers, I was interested in the fact that people like me seemed to experience reality in a fundamentally different manner. I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.
One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals. For instance, the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones. That is more or less what Warren invites readers to do. He spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.
Does it work? In my own research, the more people affirmed, “I feel God’s love for me, directly,” the less stressed and lonely they were and the fewer psychiatric symptoms they reported.
More strikingly, I saw that the church implicitly invited people to treat God like an actual therapist. In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.
“It’s just like talking to a therapist,” one woman told me, “especially in the beginning, when you’re revealing things that are deep in your heart and deep in your soul, the things that have been pushed down and denied.” The church encourages people to bring those conversations with God into their prayer group and to share their struggles with others, who are expected to respond with love, respect and compassion.
You can see this therapeutic dimension most clearly when evangelicals respond to the body blows of life. The churches I studied resisted turning to God for an explanation of tragedy. They asked only that people turn to God for help in dealing with the pain. “God doesn’t want to be analyzed,” one woman explained to me. “He wants your love.”
A young man — a kind man with two adorable children and a loving wife — died unexpectedly in one of the churches where I spent time. When the pastor spoke in church the following Sunday, he did not try to explain the death. Instead, he told the church to experience God as present. “This is a difficult philosophical issue for Christians,” he said. “We who believe in a loving, personal God who created the earth and can intervene at any time — we have this problem.” His answer? “Creation is beautiful but it is not safe.” He called our everyday reality “broken.” What should you do? Get to know God. “Learn to hang out with him now.”
I saw the same thing at another church, where a young couple lost a child in a late miscarriage. Some months later I spent several hours with them. Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
This approach to the age-old problem of theodicy is not really available to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, who do not imagine a God so intimate, so loving, so much like a person. That may help to explain why it is evangelical Christianity that has grown so much in the last 40 years.
It can seem puzzling that evangelical Christians sidestep the apparent contradiction of why bad things happen to good people. But for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation.
This may seem theologically simple-minded — indeed, even some evangelical Christians find it so. But there are lots of ways to explain things in this sophisticated, scientifically aware society. What churches like these offer is a way of dealing with unhappiness. Tragedy, and prayers that apparently go unanswered, can actually strengthen believers’ sense of a bond with God. That’s when they feel that they most need Him.
By VALI NASR
FOR the first time since 2009, there may be signs of a break in the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program.Iran entered the latest talks with a slightly softened position. That is good news, but the United States will have to change its negotiating strategy to take advantage of it.
Economic sanctions are biting hard in Iran. Meanwhile, its strategic position is crumbling because of the turmoil in its ally Syria and the rise of militant Sunni Islamism throughout the Arab Middle East. Together, these forces seem to have forced Iran to reconsider its own bargaining position.
So rather than strengthen sanctions another notch, America should give Iran a little tit for tat: begin negotiating directly, and put on the table the prospect of lifting sanctions, one by one, as bargaining chips.
The United States should shift from trying to further intimidate Iran to trying to clinch an agreement. The sanctions have given America leverage, and we should use it to seek a deal that would finally restrict Iran’s ability to make bomb fuel, rather than ratchet up the pressure in the hopes of getting either a broader deal now or a total surrender later.
The problem with just standing tough is that it is likely to backfire; Iran is understandably nervous, and if it thinks America is intransigent, it might double down on its nuclear program, speeding it up past a point of no return.
Hints of progress were seen at the round of talks in Kazakhstan last month. The United States, negotiating together with Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, proposed only small steps that would slightly ease American-imposed restrictions (allowing Iran to again trade in gold and silver, and to obtain spare parts for civilian aircraft), while insisting on stringent demands that Iran give up its ability to highly enrich uranium and use it to build nuclear weapons. Somewhat surprisingly, Iran said the proposal was welcome but not enough — and that it would respond in a few weeks. That contrasted with its previous pattern of flatly rejecting the other side’s proposals.
In 2009 and 2010, Iran sent another signal, in the form of a proposal worked out with Brazil and Turkey, that it might agree to export much of its more highly enriched uranium in exchange for being allowed to enrich it to a level suitable for nuclear power and medical uses. But the United States and its partners dismissed the offer as propaganda, largely because Iran had not made it directly, and because Iran would have still retained enough fuel to start building bombs later.
The new pressures on Tehran, its milder tone in the talks and its past signals that it might consider restricting enrichment levels suggest that Iran may be ready for productive bargaining. So the United States should be open to that possibility when talks resume in the coming days, and make new proposals to determine how serious the Iranians are.
Since 2003, Washington has relied on sanctions to bring Iran to the international bargaining table. But the Bush and Obama administrations have done more sanctioning than negotiating — partly because putting pressure on Iran is popular in America, while making deals with Iran is not. Rather than pushing for a negotiated solution to the crisis, Washington has often seemed to be holding out for Iran to simply capitulate.
But that only undermines the original purpose of the sanctions — to resolve the crisis without war — because sanctions can be a two-edged sword. The more pressure they exert, the more suspicious Iran’s leaders get about America’s real intentions. The more suspicious they are, the more they want a nuclear program. And the closer they get to their nuclear goals, the more they feel able to resist new pressure.
Iran’s leaders already suspect that America’s real goal is to overthrow their Islamic republic; at the same time, their citizens bitterly resent the sanctions, and generally support the idea of an Iranian nuclear program. Their leaders remember the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein violated international law by using chemical weapons and was never punished for it. Iran’s leaders concluded that they were vulnerable to aggression by their better-armed Arab neighbors, and that international agreements offered no protection.
In other words, insecurity drives Iran’s nuclear ambition, and it leaves Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, convinced that if he were to give up Iran’s nuclear program entirely, as Libya did in the last decade, he would only invite the fate ofMuammar el-Qaddafi. That logic — if Iran is going to face sanctions anyway, better to face them with the bomb than without — has produced a saying in Tehran these days: “Better to be North Korea than Iraq.” Still, Iran’s leaders and citizens clearly want the sanctions lifted, and they may now be signaling a way out of the deadlock.
It’s time for the United States to test the leaders’ real intentions and offer them a path to rejoining the international community.
The committee of six nations involved in the Iran talks has achieved its original goal: to confront Iran with a united front. So the other five, whose differing agendas inevitably complicate the bargaining, should step aside and leave the United States to one-to-one talks with Iran.
And rather than offering only vague promises that serious concessions might be rewarded someday by dropping all the sanctions as a package, Washington should offer to do away with specific sanctions, piece by piece, in exchange for specific Iranian concessions. In that way, both sides might begin dismantling the most dangerous aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in incremental, verifiable ways.
Of course, Iran might lose enthusiasm for negotiations as the sanctions disappear. But by then, if its first concessions had been substantial, it would have given up critical pieces of its nuclear program, leaving the world a little safer.
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Menachem Froman, a maverick Orthodox rabbi who helped lead settlers into the territory seized by Israel in its 1967 war with Arab nations, then became a fervent, startlingly unconventional voice for conciliation with the Palestinians, died on Monday in Tekoa in the Israeli-administrated West Bank. He was 68.
His son Shivi confirmed the death, Israeli newspapers said. Rabbi Froman had colorectal cancer.
Rabbi Froman was a founder of Gush Emunim, the ideological, messianic settlement movement that sprang up after Israel’s conquest of the West Bank. He became chief rabbi of the settlement of Tekoa, the ancestral home of the prophet Amos, and with his flowing white beard and ringing demands for morality and justice, he himself resembled an Old Testament seer.
His grand, unrealized vision was that the enmity between the settlers and their Palestinian neighbors could be erased by appeals to religious ideals. He carried his message to hosts of Muslim sheiks and met for hours in repeated visits with the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and the Hamas chieftains Ahmed Yassin and Mahmoud al-Zahar. He also huddled with Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during Israel’s battle with Hamas last November.
It did not faze Rabbi Froman that few of the 3,000 residents of Tekoa agreed with his approach, nor that he was once threatened with expulsion from the town. One of his sons, at age 9, protested against his overtures to Arabs.
Rabbi Froman nonetheless spoke out against attacks by Jewish settlers on mosques, and he often visited damaged holy sites with Palestinian officials. He started peace organizations and frequently appeared on Palestinian news media.
He stood solidly with the most right-wing settlers in his refusal to leave the land he said he had come to love, calling it sacred to him and his people. Unlike most other settlers, though, he insisted that he would be comfortable continuing to live in Tekoa even if it became part of a Palestinian state through a peace agreement. At present, Israel claims the right to administer the West Bank, a position widely rejected.
Rabbi Froman said he wanted to turn the discussion away from land and politics to God; the commonalities between monotheistic Judaism and Islam were great, and the two traditions had coexisted for long periods of history, he pointed out. Contested land, he said, could become consecrated land.
“Let’s give God the honor to do what he wants,” Rabbi Froman said in a 1996 interview with The Miami Herald. “In the meantime, the reality is to live in peace with each other.”
His first step in approaching Arab leaders, he said, was “a long conversation,” beginning with two hours devoted to praising God. The essential refrain was: “God is great. God is merciful. God gives great prizes to the man working for peace.” Three more hours were spent comparing religions: “In the Koran it is written. In the Bible it is written.”
“In the end,” he said, “we take five minutes to solve the political problems.”
In February 2008, Rabbi Froman worked with Khaled Amayreh, a Palestinian journalist close to Hamas, to forge a peace agreement that would have released an imprisoned Israeli soldier, lifted economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas, and imposed a cease-fire there. Hamas leaders accepted the deal, but Israel ignored it.
Frustrated by the failure of the deal, Rabbi Froman told The Jerusalem Post that the “root of the problem is Israeli and American arrogance.”
“If Israeli governments had grasped these opportunities” over the years, he said, “not only would a great deal of bloodshed have been spared, and there would be a cease-fire between our two peoples, but there would have been no attack on the World Trade Center, and no American invasion of Iraq.”
Some dismissed Rabbi Froman as a mystic given to idealistic but unachievable policy proposals. One was to jump-start the peace process by making Jerusalem an international city, so as to safeguard the religious treasures of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Israel’s capital would move to another city under the plan. In an interview with The New York Times in 2008, Gershon Baskin of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information called the rabbi a “very esoteric kind of guy.”
But people on both sides of Israel’s political spectrum praised his accomplishments after his death. Peace Now, the liberal advocacy group, said in a statement that Rabbi Froman had “proved that religion can be a bridge to peace.” Davidi Perl, council head of Gush Etzion, the settlers’ group, called Rabbi Froman “a huge scholar, with a great soul, who loved people and brought them closer to the Torah.”
In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last year, Rabbi Froman made an unusual comment for a clergyman. He said he had spent his whole life trying to decide if God existed and had never found an answer. He could not escape dwelling on the fact, he explained, that most of his family had been killed in Poland by the Nazis.
Menachem Froman was born in Galilee in 1945 when Britain governed the territory. He was one of the original settlers of Tekoa, a mixed community of religious and nonreligious Jews centered on a school run by his wife, Hadassah, who survives him, as do his 10 children. He went to high school in Haifa, served in the paratroopers during the 1967 war and gradually became more religious.
As he rejected national patriotism in favor of his vision of peace through religion, he became more liberal in other respects. He broke tradition by inviting a female flutist to play in his synagogue. He called for an end to the Orthodox Jewish belief that men should not hear women sing. He protested gender segregation in Israel. He hosted gatherings at which rock musicians played. And he shared his deepest thoughts, like his fear of death.
ON Monday, in their final debate, Mitt Romney denounced President Obama for creating “tension” and “turmoil” with Israel and chided him for having “skipped Israel” during his travels in the Middle East. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Romney hasrepeatedly accused Mr. Obama of having “thrown allies like Israel under the bus.”
But history tells a different story. Indeed, whenever the United States has put serious, sustained pressure on Israel’s leaders — from the 1950s on — it has come from Republican presidents, not Democratic ones. This was particularly true under Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.
Just one week before the Iraq war began in March 2003, Mr. Bush was still struggling to form a broad international coalition to oust Saddam Hussein. Unlike in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, decided to opt out, meaning that the United Nations could not provide formal legitimacy for a war against Mr. Hussein. Britain was almost alone in aligning itself with America, and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support was deemed crucial in Washington.
Just as the British Parliament was about to approve the joint venture, a group of Mr. Blair’s Labour Party colleagues threatened to revolt, demanding Israeli concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for their support for the Iraq invasion. This demand could have scuttled the war effort, and there was only one way that British support could be maintained: Mr. Bush would have to declare that the “road map” for Middle East peace, a proposal drafted early in his administration, was the formal policy of the United States.
Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, had been vehemently opposed to the road map, which contained several “red lines” that he refused to accept, including a stipulationthat the future status of Jerusalem would be determined by “a negotiated resolution” taking into account “the political and religious concerns of both sides.” This wording implied a possible end to Israel’s sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli control since 1967.
On March 13, 2003, senior Israeli officials were summarily informed that the United States would publicly adopt the draft road map as its policy. Washington made it clear to us that on the eve of a war, Israel was expected to refrain from criticizing the American policy and also to ensure that its sympathizers got the message.
The United States insisted that the road map be approved without any changes, saying Israel’s concerns would be addressed later. At a long and tense cabinet debate I attended in May 2003, Mr. Sharon reluctantly asked his ministers to accept Washington’s demand. Benjamin Netanyahu, then the finance minister, disagreed, and he abstained during the vote on the cabinet resolution, which eventually passed.
From that point on, the road map, including the language on Jerusalem, became the policy bible for America, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Not only was Israel strong-armed by a Republican president, but it was also compelled to simply acquiesce and swallow the bitterest of pills.
Three years later, the Bush administration again pressured Israel into supporting a policy that ran counter to its interests. In early 2006, the terrorist group Hamas ran candidates in the Palestinian legislative elections. Israel had been adamant that no leader could campaign with a gun in his belt; the Palestinian party Fatah opposed Hamas’s participation, too. But the White House would have none of this; it pushed Fatah to allow Hamas candidates to run, and pressured Israel into allowing voting for Hamas — even in parts of East Jerusalem.
After Hamas won a clear majority, Washington sought to train Fatah forces to crush it militarily in the Gaza Strip. But Hamas pre-empted this scheme by taking control of Gaza in 2007, and the Palestinians have been ideologically and territorially divided ever since.
Despite the Republican Party’s shrill campaign rhetoric on Israel, no Democratic president has ever strong-armed Israel on any key national security issue. In the 1956 Suez Crisis, it was a Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who joined the Soviet Union in forcing Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula after a joint Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt.
In 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Tel Aviv, the administration of the first President Bush urged Israel not to strike back so as to preserve the coalition of Arab states fighting Iraq. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir resisted his security chiefs’ recommendation to retaliate and bowed to American demands as his citizens reached for their gas masks.
After the war, Mr. Shamir agreed to go to Madrid for a Middle East peace conference set up by Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Fearful that Mr. Shamir would be intransigent at the negotiating table, the White House pressured him by withholding $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel, causing us serious economic problems. The eventual result was Mr. Shamir’s political downfall. The man who had saved Mr. Bush’s grand coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991 was “thrown under the bus.”
In all of these instances, a Republican White House acted in a cold and determined manner, with no regard for Israel’s national pride, strategic interests or sensitivities. That’s food for thought in October 2012.
WALTHAM, Mass. — It’s been a tough few years for art at Brandeis University. Its Rose museum has been struggling to recover from a near-death experience since it tried to sell its distinguished collection in 2009 to fill a financial hole punched by the recession and the Bernard Madoff scandal.
But if the Rose Art Museum nearly fell off the map, it has now taken a step meant to make the art world take notice. Its first exhibition since 2008 from outside the museum’s collection has now opened, featuring an artist from Jerusalem whose work is critical of Israel.
The artist, Dor Guez, 30, is the son of a Palestinian Christian and a Tunisian-born Jew, and his polemical work largely centers on narrating the experiences of the Arab citizens of Israel, including the way their presence in Israel after the Jewish state was established “formed an interference in the Zionist master plan.”
At the Istanbul Biennial last year he presented“Scanograms #2, September 2011,” an installation that challenged Israel to support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations. Presenting Palestinian passports from before 1948, accompanied by testimonies in Arabic, it has since been shown in Israel.
When Mr. Guez’s work is offered in Israel, it routinely elicits heated responses. At an exhibition last year at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, for example, visitor comments included “Go to your friends in Gaza,” and “Traitor!”
Brandeis is the nation’s only nonsectarian Jewish university, and there is scant sympathy on campus for the Palestinian cause, students say. Museum and university officials say that they are not afraid of controversy, having grown accustomed to it during the battleover their thwarted plan to close the Rose.
“We know what we do now will attract lots of attention,” said Christopher Bedford, the new director of the museum. “We want to capitalize on that attention.”
Gannit Ankori, a professor of art history at Brandeis and a curator of the Guez show, “100 Steps to the Mediterranean,” said Mr. Guez was chosen for the opening exhibition “because of the exquisite quality of his work, and also because he’s challenging.”
Brandeis has described the exhibition as an exploration of “the overlooked histories of the Christian Palestinian minority in the Middle East,” though Mr. Guez’s work also delves into the experience of Muslim Palestinians.
Savvy students have noticed differences between the Guez pieces shown at Brandeis and more strident work of various Palestinian artists that is sometimes displayed in Israel and elsewhere.
“I do wonder if this was in some sense the safer route to take,” said Alia Goldfarb, a Brandeis senior.
Rida Abu Rass, a junior from Jaffa who said he was the only Palestinian undergraduate student at the university, agreed.
“It’s convenient for Brandeis, because the exhibition is not as out there as it could have been,” he said. “So it is not as hard for public relations.”
Nonetheless, “100 Steps to the Mediterranean,” which opened on Sept. 20 and runs through Dec. 9, is hard on Israeli Jews.
A video playing on a large screen spanning the back wall of the exhibition is the show’s focal point. A rolling image of Jaffa’s beachfront fills the screen, while a voice asks: “Why did the people flee? They were afraid the Jews would do something to them.”
In another piece a college-age relative of the artist speaks to the camera as if it were the screen of a confession booth. “I grew up with all the songs that any other girl, say Jewish, grows up with,” she says. “Sometimes it’s really scary to speak Arabic next to all kinds of people, because I’m scared they’ll literally beat me up.”
Noam Lekach, a junior from Israel who leads Students for Justice in Palestine, a campus organization that says on its Web site that it wants “to give a voice to those who are interested in promoting the Palestinian perspective,” said it is hard to get other Brandeis students to pay attention to that point of view. “My experience in trying to bring the Palestinian narrative to campus is that people are really resistant to hear about it,” he said “They either ignore it or dismiss it as being anti-Semitic or against the existence of Israel.”
A leader of a pro-Israel student group also said he has had little dialogue with ideological rivals. “I’ve never had any formal interaction with Students for Justice in Palestine,” said Joshua Kaye, an organizer for the Brandeis Israel Political Action Committee. “They’ve never talked with us and we’ve never talked with them, even socially.”
So it is perhaps surprising that responses to Mr. Guez’s exhibition have been mild.
“You would expect very negative reactions at Brandeis,” Mr. Lekach said. “But all of the people I have talked about it with really enjoyed it. Maybe because the show is not too out there, people are willing to discuss it and take it more seriously.”
Members of the university’s pro-Israel camp are also visiting the exhibition.
“I’m sure that a lot of people might disagree with the content, but I’m also sure that people think it’s very thought-provoking,” Mr. Kaye said. “We are still very much figuring out how to talk about these issues.”
September 2, 2012, 5:00 PM
About 12 years ago, while studying Arabic in Cairo, I became friends with some Egyptian students. As we got to know each other better we also became concerned about each other’s way of life. They wanted to save my soul from eternally burning in hell by converting me to Islam. I wanted to save them from wasting their real life for an illusory afterlife by converting them to the secular worldview I grew up with. In one of our discussions they asked me if I was sure that there is no proof for God’s existence. The question took me by surprise. Where I had been intellectually socialized it was taken for granted that there was none. I tried to remember Kant’s critique of the ontological proof for God. “Fine,” Muhammad said, “but what about this table, does its existence depend on a cause?” “Of course,” I answered. “And its cause depends on a further cause?” Muhammad was referring to the metaphysical proof for God’s existence, first formulated by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna in the
When we transform the disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.
11th century: since an infinite regress of causes is impossible, Avicenna argues, things that depend on a cause for their existence must have something that exists through itself as their first cause. And this necessary existent is God. I had a counter-argument to that to which they in turn had a rejoinder. The discussion ended inconclusively.
I did not convert to Islam, nor did my Egyptian friends become atheists. But I learned an important lesson from our discussions: that I hadn’t properly thought through some of the most basic convictions underlying my way of life and worldview — from God’s existence to the human good. The challenge of my Egyptian friends forced me to think hard about these issues and defend views that had never been questioned in the European student milieu where I came from.
The other thing I realized was how contested my views were. I completed high school in a West German town in 1990 in the middle of Germany’s turbulent reunification (I ended my final exam in history describing the newest political developments I had heard on the radio that same morning). For a few years after the breakdown of the Soviet bloc many thought that everyone would be secular and live in a liberal democracy before long. The discussions with my Egyptian friends brought home that I better not hold my breath.
Since that time I have organized philosophy workshops at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem, at an Islamic university in Indonesia, with members of a Hasidic community in New York, withhigh school students in Salvador da Bahia (the center of Afro-Brazilian culture), and in a First Nations community in Canada. These workshops gave me first-hand insight into how deeply divided we are on fundamental moral, religious and philosophical questions. While many find these disagreements disheartening, I will argue that they can be a good thing — if we manage to make them fruitful for a culture debate.
Can we be sure that our beliefs about the world match how the world actually is and that our subjective preferences match what is objectively in our best interest? If the truth is important to us these are pressing questions.
We might value the truth for different reasons: because we want to live a life that is good and doesn’t just appear so; because we take knowing the truth to be an important component of the good life; because we consider living by the truth a moral obligation independent of any consequences; or because, like my Egyptian friends, we want to come closer to God who is the Truth (al-Haqq in Arabic, one of God’s names in Islam). Of course we wouldn’t hold our beliefs and values if we weren’t convinced that they are true. But that’s no evidence that they are. Weren’t my Egyptian friends just as convinced of their views as I was of mine? More generally: don’t we find a bewildering diversity of beliefs and values, all held with great conviction, across different times and cultures? If considerations such as these lead you to concede that your present convictions could be false, then you are a fallibilist. And if you are a fallibilist you can see why valuing the truth and valuing a culture of debate are related: because you will want to critically examine your beliefs and values, for which a culture of debate offers an excellent setting.
Of course we don’t need to travel all the way to Cairo to subject our beliefs and values to critical scrutiny; in theory we can also do so on our own. In practice, however, we seem to need some sort of unsettling experience that confronts us with our fallibility, or, as the great Muslim thinker al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) puts it in his intellectual autobiography“The Deliverance from Error,” that breaks the “bonds of taqlîd” — the beliefs and values stemming from the contingent circumstances of our socialization rather than from rational deliberation.
In his own case, al-Ghazâlî writes, the bonds of taqlîd broke when he realized that he would have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he was a Muslim, had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community. He explains taqlîd as the authority of “parents and teachers,” which we can restate more generally as all things other than rational argument that influence what we think and do: from media, fashion and marketing to political rhetoric and religious ideology.
The problem of taqlîd (or what social psychologists today call “conformism”) has a long history. Socrates explained the need for his gadfly mission by comparing Athenian citizens to a “sluggish” horse that “needed to be stirred up.” Note that philosophers, too, fall prey to taqlîd. Galen, the second century Alexandrian doctor and philosopher, complained that in his time Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans simply “name themselves after the sect in which they were brought up” because they “form admirations” for the school founders, not because they choose the views supported by the best arguments.
If we take taqlîd to be a fact about human psychology and agree that it is an undesirable state to be in — at least when it comes to the core convictions that underlie our way of life and worldview — then we should particularly welcome debates across cultural boundaries. For if we engage someone who does not share the cultural narratives we were brought up in (historical, political, religious etc.), we cannot rely on their authority, but are compelled to argue for our views — as I had to in my discussions with Egyptian students in Cairo. Consider a theological debate in the multicultural world of medieval Islam, described by the historian al-Humaydi (d. 1095):
At the […] meeting there were present not only people of various [Islamic] sects but also unbelievers, Magians, materialists, atheists, Jews and Christians, in short unbelievers of all kinds. Each group had its own leader, whose task it was to defend its views […]. One of the unbelievers rose and said to the assembly: we are meeting here for a debate; its conditions are known to all. You, Muslims, are not allowed to argue from your books and prophetic traditions since we deny both. Everybody, therefore, has to limit himself to rational arguments [hujaj al-‘aql]. The whole assembly applauded these words.
We can consider ourselves lucky to live at a time in which societies are becoming increasingly heterogeneous and multicultural and globalization forces us to interact across national, cultural, religious and other boundaries; for all this is conducive to breaking the bonds of taqlîd.
Of course diversity and disagreement on their own are not sufficient to bring about a culture of debate (otherwise the Middle East, the Balkans and many other places would be philosophical debating clubs!). Instead they often generate frustration and resentment or, worse, erupt in violence. That’s why we need a culture of debate. In my view, the last years of high school are the best place to lay the groundwork for such a culture.
The high school curriculum already includes subjects such as evolution, which are much more controversial than the skills required for engaging difference and disagreement in a constructive way. To provide the foundation for a culture of debate, the classes I have in mind would focus on two things: conveying techniques of debate — logical and semantic tools that allow students to clarify their views and to make and respond to arguments (a contemporary version of what Aristotelians called the Organon, the “toolkit” of the philosopher). And cultivating virtues of debate — loving the truth more than winning an argument, and trying one’s best to understand the viewpoint of the opponent.
When we can transform the disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace. I now live in Montréal, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. When a couple of years ago I had to see a doctor, the receptionist was from China, in the waiting room I sat between a Hasidic Jew and a secular Québécois couple, the doctor who attended me was from Iran, and the nurse from Haiti. This was an impressive example of how Canadians, despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical differences, can work together to provide the basic goods and services that we all need irrespective of our way of life and worldview.
But while I certainly didn’t want to get into a shouting match about God’s existence in the doctor’s office, or wait for treatment until everyone had agreed on how to live, I see no reason why we should ignore our differences altogether. Some advocates of multiculturalism ask us to celebrate, rather than just tolerate, diversity, as if our differences weren’t a reason for disagreement in the first place, but something good and beautiful — a multicultural “mosaic”! Others argue that our moral, religious, and philosophical convictions shouldn’t leave the private sphere. A good example is French laïcité: you are a citoyen in public and a Jew, Christian, or Muslim at home. Both models try to remove our reasons for objecting to beliefs and values we don’t share — one tries to remove them altogether, the other tries at least to keep them out of sight. A culture of debate, on the other hand, allows us to engage our differences in a way that is serious, yet respectful and mutually beneficial.
Some object that a culture of debate is of no value to religious citizens. Don’t they take God’s wisdom to be infallible, claim to have access to it through revelation, and accept its contents on faith rather than arguments? Yet a brief look at the history of religions shows that plenty of arguing was going on about how to understand God’s wisdom — within a religious tradition, with members of other religious traditions and, more recently, with secular opponents. Al-Ghazâlî for one writes how, after the bonds of taqlîd were broken, he “scrutinized the creed of every sect” and “tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community” in order to “distinguish between true and false.”
The rich philosophical literatures we find in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as in the Eastern religious traditions offer plenty of resources for a culture of debate. The privatization of moral, religious, and philosophical views in liberal democracies and the cultural relativism that often underlies Western multicultural agendas are a much greater obstacle to a culture of debate than religion. My friends in Cairo at any rate, and the participants in the workshops I subsequently organized, all enjoyed arguing for their views and criticizing mine.
JERUSALEM — Tamer Jbarah, a 17-year-old Palestinian student who speaks accentless Hebrew after years in a bilingual school that is about half Jewish, said he was not at all surprised when a mob of Jewish teenagers beat an Arab teenager unconscious this month while hundreds watched and did nothing to help.
“People are taught to hate,” he said, “so they hate.”
Tamer attends an unusual school, one that seeks to bridge the Arab-Jewish divide. But on the first day of classes Monday, when his teacher opened a discussion about the attack, the smoldering anger and distrust came through, even there. “From the age of 5, they say, ‘Death to Arabs,’ ” he said.
When the teacher countered, recalling a film in which Palestinian children chanted, “Death to Israel, death to Jews,” Tamer appeared defeated. “There is no hope when you see things like that,” he said.
The classroom conversation, as some two million Israeli children started school on Monday, was part of national hand-wringing over the Aug. 16 beating in Zion Square, which was described as an attempted lynching that left 17-year-old Jamal Julani near death. The education minister instructed all junior high and high schools to conduct a lesson on the episode, which revealed festering wounds regarding race, violence and extremism.
Israel has been struggling with myriad internal conflicts involving identity and pluralism. As the ultra-Orthodox population has grown, battles have erupted over the role of women in the public sphere and whether Yeshiva students should remain exempt from military service. A surge of illegal immigration by African workers led to a fierce backlash this spring, raising questions of tolerance. And a spate of mosque burnings and vandalism has hit Palestinian villages in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Monday’s effort to draw a lesson, perhaps a healing moment, came as the nation was shocked again when a court held two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old in connection with the firebombing of a Palestinian taxi on the same day. The youths live in Bat Ayin, a religious Jewish settlement, and the taxi was hit on a nearby road. The driver and his five passengers were wounded, two seriously. The youths’ lawyer on Monday denied their involvement; the father of one called the case “a modern-day blood libel.” Eight teenagers, ages 13 to 19, have been arrested in the Zion Square attack, and several are expected to be formally charged on Tuesday with criminal conspiracy and grievous bodily harm by two or more people.
Parents of the teenagers, many wearing ultra-Orthodox garb and quietly reciting Psalms, waited anxiously outside a courtroom here Sunday during a succession of hearings. The mother of one suspect and several of the teenagers’ lawyers painted a portrait of an aimless group of youths, some of them troubled or having drifted from their religious upbringing with few social outlets, particularly during the long summer break.
“These are kids who do not have the patience to study,” said the mother, whose 18-year-old son has denied participation in the beating. She spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his identity. “They have nothing to do, no money to spend and nowhere to go.”
Some knew each other well, others only by sight from hanging out in downtown Jerusalem’s HahatulotSquare, notorious for late-night, alcohol-fueled brawls. The Zion Square episode began in Hahatulot Square, where a crowd was singing racist, anti-Arab songs when, according to the police, a girl announced that she had recently been sexually assaulted by an Arab, sending the boys off on a rampage.
Only one suspect, identified as O. because of his age, has admitted beating Jamal; he is believed to have delivered the critical blow that caused the youth’s heart to stop. Shortly after his arrest, he said to reporters outside court, “For my part he can die; he’s an Arab.” O.’s defense lawyer, Itzhak Bam, described him as the only child of a quiet ultra-Orthodox couple, who he said found it hard to cope with their child’s behavioral problems and took him to a psychiatrist in the days before the assault.
A Jewish medical student administered CPR to Jamal, who was released from the hospital a week after the attack.
O., who is 14, spent the last school year at a boarding school and then a home for at-risk youth in a West Bank settlement, Mr. Bam said. Home for the summer, he removed his skullcap and gravitated to Hahatulot Square. His lawyer denied that racism was the primary motive. “I’m not sure that he could intelligently discuss the differences between right and left in Israeli politics,” Mr. Bam said.
Right and left alike have been shaken by the attack. Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of Israel’s Parliament, called it “a microcosm of a national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy,” and said the government itself is responsible.
“This evil comes from insufficient education,” Mr. Rivlin, a leader of the right-leaning Likud Party, said after visiting Jamal in the hospital last week. “Unfortunately, more and more youth think that hate and racial violence are permissible.”
In ordering schools to confront the episode, the education minister warned that some pupils might speak in support of the perpetrators. Educators were told to let the youngsters express themselves, but that “the unequivocal message must be a condemnation of racism and violence.”
Chaim Dajczman, principal of Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts in Tel Aviv, said he would bring the topic up in his weekly meetings with students in grades 10, 11 and 12. “We can’t pass an event so extreme and go on as usual,” Mr. Dajczman said.
The vast majority of these discussions will take place in something of a vacuum, since Israel has separate school systems for Arabs and Jews (and, indeed, distinct ones for secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews). The rare exception is Tamer’s school, Hand in Hand, which runs three campuses enrolling a total of 950 students. After some brief words about the schedule Monday and a required volunteer program, the 12th-grade teacher turned quickly to Zion Square.
The discussion started out hopefully enough, with Yael Keinan, 17, announcing that her Jewish youth group would return to the scene of the crime the next afternoon to try to initiate conversations about racism and violence.
But that was quickly overcome by her classmates’ personal experiences.
Rasha Masalha recalled a Jewish 4-year-old telling her it was important to learn Hebrew and English — “Hebrew because it’s the language of the Bible and English because the Americans saved us from the Arabs.”
Kevin Kahkedjian said that when he and a Jewish friend traveled together through Ben-Gurion International Airport a couple of years ago, “I had to strip to my underwear and he just went through.”
Tamer told of hanging out with a group of Tel Aviv teenagers who were shocked to discover he was Arab because, he said, “I didn’t look like a terrorist or a rapist.”
Yael, one of 6 Jewish students among the 19 in the class, clammed up.
“You want to say a lot of stuff, but you can’t because people here don’t want to change their minds,” she said after class. “If people here are so depressed, how can you ever take that beyond? How can you ever dream more? It’s only the first day of school.”
JERUSALEM — Scores of Israeli youths assaulted a group of Palestinians last week, beating one unconscious as hundreds of bystanders watched without intervening in the heart of West Jerusalem, the police said on Monday, announcing that among the seven people arrested was a 13-year-old boy and two teenage girls.
On Monday, some of the teenage suspects commented near the courthouse where they were remanded, adding to the shocking nature of the case. “For my part he can die,” said one of the suspects, who admitted taking part in the assault. “He’s an Arab,” he told reporters outside the courtroom by way of explanation. “He cursed my mother.
“If it was up to me, I’d have murdered him,” he added.
The attack, described by one witness as a “lynch,” has laid bare the undercurrent of Jewish-Arab tensions that plague this mixed but politically divided city and that is leading many Israelis to question how their society could have come to this.
The police said the episode started as a brawl on Thursday, after a girl in a crowd of Israeli youths complained that she had been harassed by an Arab. Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said that her comments spurred the crowd to seek vengeance.
The police said the crowd arbitrarily focused on Jamal Julani, 17, and his friends, beating Mr. Julani until he passed out. “According to those questioned, there was a fight, there was cursing,” Mr. Rosenfeld said. “One thing led to another.”
Mr. Julani, a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud, which is predominantly Palestinian, regained consciousness on Sunday. In an interview at the hospital, he said he had no memory of what had happened to him and could not even remember being downtown on Thursday. But relatives by his bedside, including a cousin who was with him at the time of the assault, insisted that the attack was entirely unprovoked.
The cousin, Muhammad Mujahid, 17, said they had been walking along the road with a group of four friends who suddenly found themselves being chased by a mob of 40 or 50 youths. “They were shouting ‘Arabs, death to Arabs,’ ” he said. He and three other friends managed to escape, he said, but Mr. Julani was caught and beaten in his head and upper chest before he collapsed.
This is absolutely reprehensible. As Jews, across the board we should be condemning this kind of bullshit.
Over the last decade, as the contemporary art world has grown to planetary size — more galleries, more fairs, more art-selling Web sites, bigger museums, new biennials almost by the month — it has sometimes seemed as if a new kind of cultural figure has been born as well: the international curator, constantly in flight to somewhere.
The phenomenon is not wholly new. Roaming European curators like Harald Szeemann and Germano Celant set the terms in the 1960s. But the art world’s transformation has transformed the curatorial field, and this week you needed go no further than a few places in Manhattan to sample its increasingly global sweep. One afternoon in a meeting room near Madison Square Park a young Australian curator who specializes in aboriginal art was sitting next to a Yale-trained painter-art-professor-curator from Tennessee, who sat across a table from fellow curators from London, Beijing, Mexico City, Madrid (by way of Brazil) and Berlin (though working in Albania). In previous months curators from 20 other countries, many of them far from contemporary art’s beaten paths — Sri Lanka, Latvia, Nigeria, Bulgaria — had been in the city for the same reason.
Each of the curators had paid $1,900 — and in some cases more, for airfare and lodging — to come to New York for a 10-day training and networking program recently established by Independent Curators International, which has been known through most of its three decades for helping turn curators’ ideas into traveling exhibitions that are rented by established museums.
But over the last three years this nonprofit organization, based in modest offices overlooking lower Broadway, has reinvented itself, and its profile has begun to rise along with the profile of the profession.
While not exactly lucrative — the most recent snapshot by the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the estimated mean salary of a curator, broadly defined, in the United States at $53,540 — the profession has grown rapidly in cachet. The word itself has seeped into the language, a little too deeply. (“Curate your Facebook profile like you curate your life,” a social media blog counseled recently.) And while the term “independent curator” is misleading — curators are usually attached to institutions or programs, if only temporarily — the example of itinerant curators who have become art-world celebrities in recent years, like Okwui Enwezor, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Neville Wakefield, has had an effect.
“This whole phenomenon is really a post-millennium thing,” said Kate Fowle, a longtime British curator who took over as the executive director of Independent Curators in 2009 after working for a year as the curator of a new art center in Beijing. “It’s a profession growing at a very, very fast rate.”
Although precise numbers are hard to come by, Ms. Fowle said that an indication of the field’s size worldwide was that in the two and a half years since her organization started a training program in 2010, 672 applicants from more than 62 countries — “many more than we ever expected,” she said — have vied for what has turned out to be about 150 spots in the program, chosen by a jury. Two sessions are held each year in New York, each with room for only about 14 participants. And the popularity of the program quickly led Independent Curators to begin collaborations with other groups to start parallel training sessions elsewhere: in Philadelphia, Mumbai, Beijing and southeast Brazil, at the privately financed contemporary art complex known as Inhotim.
In New York this week the latest participants, ranging in age from early 20s to early 50s, spent time with some of the most prominent professionals of the city’s museums and nonprofit spaces: Nancy Spector, the chief curator at the Guggenheim; Scott Rothkopf, from the Whitney; Laura Hoptman from the Museum of Modern Art; Matthew Higgs from White Columns. The subjects and discussions — from the aesthetic subtleties of plinths and sandpaper tape to ideas about organizing exhibitions against one’s own taste — were as expansive and amorphous as the job description.
Ms. Spector spoke about the difficulties of “grappling with the authority” of the Guggenheim’s architecture (“I sometimes think that I can’t install in a square room anymore”), but also, more extensively, about the dangers of the “helicopter model of international curating,” which too often leads to superficial understanding of cultures and their art — and to bad shows, she said.
Mr. Rothkopf, who was headed to another curators’ conference in Boston the next day, extolled the virtues — those he joked might seem almost “neocon” in an accelerating art world — of working closely with museum collections and with artists over long periods of time to create exhibitions “that shape an argument.”
“I want to have some voice as a curator,” he said, “not just as a kind of movie producer.”
An unofficial theme of the gathering was a desire among many curators to find ways to to define themselves against the juggernaut of the commercial art world while still being able to pay the bills.
“It’s very hard for people doing this in China to find the right kind of place, that doesn’t feel like just a part of the market,” said Su Wei, an independent critic and curator from Beijing. Meaghan Kent, who worked for Chelsea galleries for many years and recently started a nonprofit program, site95, that organizes shows in temporary urban spaces, said that many curators she knows are as creative about their livelihoods as they are in their work with art and artists.
“There are a lot of people out there who are artist-curator-bartender-whatevers, and they just put it all together to make it work,” she said. “They want to be able to have the freedom to make things up as they go.”
Emilia Galatis, a curator from Perth, Australia, who spent part of last year in the desert meeting aboriginal artists, said that visiting New York and talking to curators from around the world underscored for her how far off the radar of contemporary art aboriginal art remains, and how narrow the focus of the curatorial field can be despite its size.
“It’s really hard even to talk precisely about global curating when the world is still so diverse,” she said.
But Mr. Su said that the more he traveled as a curator, the less diverse the art world was coming to seem. “I was at another curators conference just before I came here, in Guangzhou, and all the things we were discussing there weren’t much different from what we’re discussing here today.”
ALL the major religions place great importance on compassion. Whether it’s the parable of the good Samaritan in Christianity, Judaism’s “13 attributes of compassion” or the Buddha’s statement that “loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice,” empathy with the suffering of others is seen as a special virtue that has the power to change the world. This idea is often articulated by the Dalai Lama, who argues that individual experiences of compassion radiate outward and increase harmony for all.
As a social psychologist interested in the emotions, I long wondered whether this spiritual understanding of compassion was also scientifically accurate. Empirically speaking, does the experience of compassion toward one person measurably affect our actions and attitudes toward other people? If so, are there practical steps we can take to further cultivate this feeling? Recently, my colleagues and I conducted experiments that answered yes to both questions.
In one experiment, designed with the psychologist Paul Condon and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we recruited people to take part in a study that was ostensibly about the relation of mathematical ability to taste perception — but that in actuality was a study of how the experience of compassion affects your behavior.
Each experimental session consisted of three individuals: a real participant and two confederates (i.e., people who secretly worked for us). First, the participants were told that they had four minutes to solve as many of 20 difficult math problems as they could and that they would receive 50 cents for each one they solved correctly. Twenty was far more than the typical person could do; the average number solved was 4. After time expired, the experimenter approached each person to ask how many problems he or she had solved, paid the person accordingly, and then had the person place his or her work in the shredder.
The situation was rigged so that the experimenter would run out of money just before paying the last person, Dan, who was a confederate. While the experimenter left to get more money, Dan dumped his work into the shredder in full view of everyone. When the experimenter returned, Dan reported that he had completed all 20 problems and had already shredded his work to save time. The experimenter paid him the full $10. But it was obvious to all that Dan had cheated. (There was also a “control” variation in which Dan did not cheat.)
Everyone then moved on to the “taste perception” phase. Here, participants prepared taste samples for one another, and the real participants were assigned to prepare the taste sample for Dan. The sample they had to prepare required them to pour extra-hot hot sauce into a small cup. They were led to believe that whatever they poured into the cup would be placed in Dan’s mouth in its entirety. What did they do? They did exactly what you would expect: those who saw Dan cheat poured more hot sauce into the cup — three times more, on average — than did those who did not witness the cheating. In so doing, they were intentionally acting to cause him pain.
But what of compassion? In a third variation, we had Dan cheat, but before preparing the taste samples, the other confederate, Hannah, began to sniffle and tear up. When the experimenter asked her what was wrong, she said that she had recently learned that her brother had received a diagnosis of a terminal disease. With increasing tears she asked to be excused and the experimenter complied. The participants and Dan then continued as before, though with quite different results: participants who saw Dan cheat poured no more hot sauce than did those who did not witness his cheating.
Before preparing the taste samples, we also had the participants fill out a questionnaire about their present feelings (among other items). The degree of compassion they were feeling directly predicted the amount of decreased hot sauce they poured for Dan.
It seems, then, that the Dalai Lama is right: the experience of compassion toward a single individual does shape our actions toward others.
In another study, published in the journal Emotion, the psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I conducted an experiment ostensibly about music perception — but that actually investigated how feelings of compassion might be increased.
Our hunch was that compassion is easiest to feel when you have a sense of commonality with someone else. So we paired up participants in teams: one real participant and one confederate. First, they had to tap their hands on sensors to tones played over earphones. In some cases the tones led them to tap their hands in synchrony; in other cases, the tones led them to tap their hands in a random mismatching manner.
WE next had the participants watch their tapping partner get cheated by another confederate, which resulted in the partner’s erroneously being assigned to complete a stack of onerous word problems. As our participants were leaving, they were informed by an automated message that if they desired, they could help complete some of the work assigned to their partners. If they did so, we timed how long they spent working on the task.
The results were striking: the simple act of tapping one’s hands in synchrony with another caused our participants to report feeling more similar to their partners and to have greater compassion for their plight: it increased the number of people who helped their partner by 31 percent and increased the average time spent helping from one minute to more than seven.
What these results suggest is that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.
What does this mean for cultivating compassion in society? It means that effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. There is nothing special about tapping in synchrony; any such commonality will do. Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity.
Simply learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of commonalities would generate greater empathy among all of us — and foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way.
David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is a co-author of “Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us.”
What compels us to leave home, to travel to other places? The great travel writer Bruce Chatwin described nomadism as an “inveterate impulse,” deeply rooted in our species. The relentless movement of the modern world bears this out: our relative prosperity has not turned us into a sedentary species. The World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations, reported nearly a billion tourist arrivals in 2011. Some 200 million people are now living outside their country of birth.
This type of massive movement — the rearrangement, temporary or permanent, of multitudes — is as fundamental to modern life as the Internet, global trade or any other sociopolitical developments. Certainly, many of our most intractable collective challenges as a society are directly linked to our mobility: urbanization, environmental depletion, scarcity and, of course, immigration. An immigrant is a traveler without a return ticket.
In the Bible, the human journey begins with an expulsion. God’s chosen people are also those condemned to wander. Not only wander, but wonder: Why are we in exile? Where is home? Can this rupture ever be repaired? “Gilgamesh,” the Icelandic sagas and “The Odyssey” are all about the itinerant life. Yet these characters don’t see travel as we moderns do. They embark on journeys of mythic significance — the literature of travel in the premodern era did not recognize travel for leisure or self-improvement. Today, our approach to travel is defined not by archetypal imagery but, rather, according to our own mostly prosaic trips. Literature, to be sure, still produces grand quests; likewise, there are still many people whose journeys are precarious and momentous on an epic scale.
For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.
St. Augustine believed that “because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” We often think of restlessness as a malady. Thus, we urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness — “stirring constantly, desirous of action” — to signal our curiosity toward what isn’t us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn’t a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.
The act of traveling is an impossibly broad category: it can encompass both the death march and the cruise ship. Travel has no inherent moral character, no necessary outcome. It can be precious or worthless, productive or destructive. It can be ennobling or self-satisfied. The returns can be only as good as what we offer of ourselves in the process. So what distinguishes meaningful, fruitful travel from mere tourism? What turns travel into a quest rather than self-serving escapism?
George Steiner wrote that “human beings need to learn to be each other’s guests on this small planet.” We usually focus on the ethical imperative of hospitality, on the obligation to be a generous host. When we travel, though, we are asking for hospitality. There’s great vulnerability in this. It also requires considerable strength. To be a good guest — like being a good host — one needs to be secure in one’s own premises: where you stand, who you are. This means we tend to romanticize travel as a lonely pursuit. In fact, a much deeper virtue arises from the demands it makes on us as social beings.
Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.
Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.
There are still traces of the pilgrimage, even in tourism, though they have become warped and solipsistic. Holy seekers go looking for oracles, tombs, sites of revelation. Tourists like to visit ruins, empty churches, battlefields, memorials. Tourist kitsch depends on a sterilized version of history and a smug assurance that all of our stories of the past are ultimately redemptive — even if it is only the tourists’ false witness that redeems them. There’s no seeking required, and no real challenge, because the emotional voyage is preprogrammed. The world has become a frighteningly small place.
The planet’s size hasn’t changed, of course, but our outsize egos have shrunk it dramatically. We might feel we know our own neighborhood, our own city, our own country, yet we still know so little about other individuals, what distinguishes them from us, how they make their habitat into home.
This lack of awareness is even more pronounced when it comes to different cultures. The media bombards us with images from far-away places, making distant people seem less foreign, more relatable to us, less threatening. It’s a mirage, obviously. The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. It isn’t about pain or excessive strain — travel doesn’t need to be an extreme sport — but we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely. We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge.
Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.
Painting is a lot of things: resilient, vampiric, perverse, increasingly elastic, infinitely absorptive and, in one form or another, nearly as old as humankind. One thing it is not, it still seems necessary to say, is dead.
Maybe it appears that way if you spend much time in New York City’s major museums, where large group shows of contemporary painting are breathtakingly rare, given how many curators are besotted with Conceptual Art and its many often-vibrant derivatives. These form a hegemony as dominant and one-sided as formalist abstraction ever was.
But that’s another reason we have art galleries. Not just to sell art, but also to give alternate, less rigid and blinkered, less institutionally sanctioned views of what’s going on.
Evidence of painting’s lively persistence is on view in Chelsea in five ambitious group exhibitions organized by a range of people: art dealers, independent curators and art historians. Together these shows feature the work of more than 120 artists and indicate some of what is going on in and around the medium. Some are more coherent than others, and what they collectively reveal is hardly the whole story, not even close. (For one thing there’s little attention to figuration; the prevailing tilt is toward abstraction of one sort or another.) A few of the shows take a diffuse approach, examining the ways painting can merge with sculpture or Conceptual Art and yield pictorial hybrids that may not even involve paint; others are more focused on the medium’s traditional forms.
All told, these efforts release a lot of raw information into the Chelsea air, creating a messy conversation, a succession of curatorial arguments whose proximity makes it easy to move back and forth among them, sizing up the contributions of individual artists as well as the larger ethos.
Everyday Abstract — Abstract Everyday
A good place to start thinking about the expansive possibilities of painting is this show at the James Cohan Gallery, one that is not explicitly about painting but that nonetheless includes a lot of works of a definite pictorial nature. Organized by Matthew Higgs, director of the alternative space White Columns, it charts a literal-minded kind of abstraction that uses common materials and, often, painting as a jumping-off point.
Representing 37 artists, the show reaches into the past for Hannah Wilke’s small, delicate chewing-gum reliefs from 1975 that are evocative of female genitalia, and for an Andy Warhol 1978 “Oxidation Painting,” its gaudy green-gold splatters achieved by having his assistants urinate on canvasses covered with copper paint.
Recent efforts include paintinglike wall pieces like Alexander Bircken’s striped rectangles of crocheted yarn (a skeletal homage to Robert Rauschenberg’s “Bed”?) and Bill Jenkins’s wire bed frame threaded through with short snakes of rope (Jackson Pollock?). There are works that suggest three-dimensional paintings, including a thick pylon of bright bundled fabric by Shinique Smith and a free-standing sheaf of painted fabric and paper by Nancy Shaver.
Other standouts include Udomsak Krisanamis’s 1996 “Acid Rain,” a swirling painting-collage of black and white; Gedi Sibony’s “The Two Simple Green Threes,” whose stenciled motif suggests a rehearsal for a quilt; and a painting on paper by David Hammons in which splashes of pink Kool-Aid evoke the nearby Warhol. There are lots of illuminating connections to be drawn among the works here.
The robust, even wholesome physicality of Mr. Higgs’s show finds its complement in “Context Message,” at Zach Feuer, a rather more barbed presentation of what I would call painting, quasi-painting and anti-painting. With works by about 40 artists (including some collectives and collaborations), the show has been organized by Tyler Dobson and Ben Morgan-Cleveland, two young artists who run the small, forward-looking gallery Real Fine Arts in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
It starts off winningly. At its center hang two beautiful quilts, one by Lola Pettway, the other by Mary Lee Bendolph and Ruth P. Mosely, all from the acclaimed quilters’ collective of Gee’s Bend, Ala. The works surrounding these two amazing pictorial objects oscillate erratically among the ironic, the sincere, the subversive and the snarky.
R. H. Quaytman, known for cool photo-based works, contributes a small, sweet but rather generic oil portrait of her husband. The great blues guitarist and self-taught painter John Fahey (1939-2001) is represented by a lively gestural abstraction.
The canvasses of Merlin Carpenter, Bjarne Melgaard and Michael Krebber all add fairly obvious twists to ironic art-world self-reference with images and texts copied from the Internet. In between, paintings by Alistair Frost, Margaret Lee and Michele Abeles, David Diao and Martin Kippenberger all reward attention.
This show never quite comes together, but that may be its point. Its scrappy waywardness gives a vivid picture of the general unruliness in and around painting right now.
Painting in Space
A similar lack of focus afflicts this show at Luhring Augustine, but not quite so fruitfully. Packed with well-known names, it is a benefit exhibition for the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and has been organized by Tom Eccles, the center’s executive director, and Johanna Burton, director of its graduate program. Among the 26 artists here the three who explore the show’s titular theme most actively are Martin Creed, represented by a big latticelike red wall painting; Rachel Harrison, whose bright, patchily painted plastic-foam sculpture comes with a length of searing orange carpet; and Liam Gillick, the subject of a show that opened at Bard last weekend, whose spare painted metal sculptures suggest geometric paintings extruded into space.
Otherwise, videos and sculptures by Tony Oursler, Pipilotti Rist, Haim Steinbach, Mark di Suvero, John Handforth and others mainly squander an interesting concept: Just about anything seems to qualify as “painting in space.” Paintings of a more wall-bound, canvas-based sort, by artists like Josh Smith, Amy Sillman, Glenn Ligon and Sarah Morris, range through current abstraction, but that’s not the same.
The 10 artists in “Stretching Painting” at Galerie Lelong don’t so much push the medium into space as meddle with its physical properties at close quarters, on the wall.
Sometimes the exercise is disarmingly simple, as with the magnified brushwork and pale colors (diluted with plaster) of Alex Kwartler’s two large paintings on plywood. Sometimes it is startlingly obsessive, as with the work of Gabriel Pionkowski, a young artist who unravels canvas, colors the individual threads and partly reweaves then into stripes or jacquardlike patterns; or Donald Moffett’s wildly suggestive combinations of furlike paint surfaces on emphatically perforated wood.
Kate Shepherd and Jim Lee indicate new possibilities for the modernist monochrome. Assembled by Veronica Roberts, a New York-based curator and scholar, the works here can sometimes feel a bit small-bore. This is relieved by Patrick Brennan’s “Boomtown (A long road home),” a big, bristling collage festooned with small paintings, and Lauren Luloff’s “Flame Violent and Golden,” which seems pieced together from textile remnants that are actually hand-painted on different scraps of cloth, using bleach. It has some of the scenery-chewing exuberance of Julian Schnabel, which is quite refreshing.
The Big Picture
A penchant for small, modestly-scaled works that is often evident in these shows is at its most extreme at Sikkema Jenkins in “The Big Picture,” a slyly titled show of works by eight artists whose efforts rarely exceed 20 inches on a side.
An implication here is that small is not only beautiful but also might actually be radical, or at least anti-establishment, in a time of immense, often spectacular artworks. Another suggestion is that there remains plenty to be done with paint applied to small, flat rectangular surfaces.
These arguments are made effectively and repeatedly, whether by Jeronimo Elespe’s “Segundo T,” whose scratched patterns suggest a text or a textile as much as a painting; Merlin James’s resplendent “Yellow,” which simply pulses with small, well-placed blooms of color; or Ann Pibal’s latest, more forthright collusions of brushy and hard-edged abstraction. Through quietly inspired brushwork alone, David Schutter breathes his own kind of life into landscape-suggestive monochromes, while John Dilg brings the canvas weave to bear, almost pixelatedly, on his cartoon-visionary landscapes.
Robert Bordo, Josephine Halvorson and Ryan McLaughlin all make the case that art exists foremost for close looking and internalized experience and nothing does this better than painting. Other mediums can do it just as well, if we’re lucky, but not better.
For the moment three solo exhibitions supplement the conversation among these group shows in nearly mutually exclusive ways. In Cheyney Thompson’s installation (through Saturday) at Andrew Kreps(525 West 22nd Street) postwar gestural abstraction and Conceptual Art collide to bracing effect in a series of gaudy but weirdly methodical canvasses of identical height whose widths are proportioned to the walls on which they are displayed; never has Mr. Thompson’s sardonic skepticism about painting and its processes looked so fierce or decorative.
At Derek Eller (615 West 27th Street) André Ethier’s small canvasses (also through Saturday) mine the overlap between modernist and folk painting with a vibrant insouciance and could easily have been included in the Sikkema Jenkins show. And in her Manhattan gallery debut at Thomas Erben (526 West 26th Street) Whitney Claflin presents, through July 28, busily painted, also small canvasses enhanced by collage-poems, jewelry, sewn patches and feathers; they announce painting’s ability to absorb all comers in a whisper that is also a joyful shout.
Canvas Is Optional
THE BIG PICTURE Through July 27. Sikkema Jenkins, 530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea; (212) 929-2262.
CONTEXT MESSAGE Through Aug. 3. Zach Feuer, 548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea; (212) 989-7700.
EVERYDAY ABSTRACT — ABSTRACT EVERYDAY Through July 27. James Cohan, 533 West 26th Street, Chelsea; (212) 714-9500.
PAINTING IN SPACE Through Aug. 17. Luhring Augustine, 531 West 24th Street, Chelsea; (212) 206-9100.
STRETCHING PAINTING Through Aug. 3. Galerie Lelong, 528 West 26th Street, Chelsea; (212) 315-0470.
by Leslie Camhi
“I was always interested in the exotic and the foreign combined with the familiar,” says the Swiss artist Caro Niederer, whose intimate paintings, mining the depths of sense memory and based upon images from her travels and her daily life, have long had a cult following in Europe. This week, a solo show opening at Hauser & Wirth in New York introduces her work to an American audience. Niederer, 49, grew up in Zurich and turned to art during the student riots of the early 1980s when “anything seemed possible,” she said on the phone from that city. Later, she spent time in Cairo on a grant, and began collecting postcards, which she transformed, via painting, into exquisite, small distillations of faraway places. She also created shimmering silk carpets derived from her paintings, and photographed them both hanging in collectors’ homes—a cool sociological study that reunites the scattered members of her tribe of works.
The eighteen luminous paintings shown at Hauser & Wirth (alongside a group of earlier pieces, some derived from postcards of Indian miniatures of the Kama Sutra) are the fruit of two years’ labor recording daily life with her two children, still lifes in her apartment, and the commute to her Zurich studio. (She separated from the children’s father, Swiss artist David Weiss—one-half of the art-world duo Fischli/Weiss—six years ago; he died in April.) After making videos, photographs, and carpets, Niederer says it was a thrill to return to the medium that was her first love. “With painting,” she explains, “there is a search for something unconscious. It’s an alternative to rational language. That’s what I wanted to do, and I want to go on with that.”
“Caro Niederer. Paintings” opens June 27 and is on view through July 27 at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York; hauserwirth.com
Published: June 23, 2012
TRAVELING in Europe last week, it seemed as if every other conversation ended with some form of this question: Why does it feel like so few leaders are capable of inspiring their people to meet the challenges of our day? There are many explanations for this global leadership deficit, but I’d focus on two: one generational, one technological.
Let’s start with the technological. In 1965, Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder, posited Moore’s Law, which stipulated that the processing power that could be placed on a single microchip would double every 18 to 24 months. It’s held up quite well since then. Watching European, Arab and U.S. leaders grappling with their respective crises, I’m wondering if there isn’t a political corollary to Moore’s Law: The quality of political leadership declines with every 100 million new users of Facebook and Twitter.
The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations — top-down — to overwhelmingly two-way conversations — bottom-up and top-down. This has many upsides: more participation, more innovation and more transparency. But can there be such a thing as too much participation — leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?
This sentence jumped out from a Politico piece on Wednesday: “The Obama and Romney campaigns spend all day strafing each other on Twitter, all while decrying the campaign’s lack of serious ideas for a serious time. Yet at most junctures when they’ve had the opportunity to go big, they’ve chosen to go small.”
Indeed, I heard a new word in London last week: “Popularism.” It’s the über-ideology of our day. Read the polls, track the blogs, tally the Twitter feeds and Facebook postings and go precisely where the people are, not where you think they need to go. If everyone is “following,” who is leading?
And then there is the exposure factor. Anyone with a cellphone today is paparazzi; anyone with a Twitter account is a reporter; anyone with YouTube access is a filmmaker. When everyone is a paparazzi, reporter and filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. And, if you’re truly a public figure — a politician — the scrutiny can become so unpleasant that public life becomes something to be avoided at all costs. Alexander Downer, Australia’s former foreign minister, remarked to me recently: “A lot of leaders are coming under massively more scrutiny than ever before. It doesn’t discourage the best of them, but the ridicule and the constant interaction from the public is making it more difficult for them to make sensible, brave decisions.”
As for the generational shift, we’ve gone from a Greatest Generation that believed in save and invest for the future to a Baby Boomer generation that believed in borrow and spend for today. Just contrast George W. Bush and his father George H.W. Bush. The father volunteered for World War II immediately after Pearl Harbor, was steeled as a leader during the cold war — a serious time, when politicians couldn’t just follow polls — and as president he raised taxes when fiscal prudence called for it. His Baby Boomer son avoided the draft and became the first president in U.S. history to cut taxes in the middle of not just one war, but two.
When you have technologies that promote quick short-term responses and judgments, and when you have a generation that has grown used to short-term gratification — but you have problems whose solutions require long, hard journeys, like today’s global credit crisis or jobs shortage or the need to rebuild Arab countries from the ground up — you have a real mismatch and leadership challenge. Virtually all leaders today have to ask their people to share burdens, not just benefits, and to both study harder and work smarter just to keep up. That requires extraordinary leadership that has to start with telling people the truth.
Dov Seidman, the author of the book “How” whose company LRN advises C.E.O.’s on leadership, has long argued that “nothing inspires people more than the truth.” Most leaders think that telling people the truth makes that leader vulnerable — either to the public or their opponents. They are wrong.
“The most important part of telling the truth is that it actually binds you to people,” explains Seidman, “because when you trust people with the truth, they trust you back.” Obfuscation from leaders just gives citizens another problem — more haze — to sort through. “Trusting people with the truth is like giving them a solid floor,” adds Seidman. “It compels action. When you are anchored in shared truth, you start to solve problems together. It’s the beginning of coming up with a better path.”
That is not what we’re seeing from leaders in America, the Arab world or Europe today. You’d think one of them, just one, would seize the opportunity to enlist their people in the truth: about where they are, what they are capable of, what plan they need to get there and what they each need to contribute to get on that better path. Whichever leader does that will have real “followers” and “friends” — not virtual ones.